‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new Fox TV series Prodigal Son is a weird new twist on a familiar genre. On so many series from Columbo through Murder She Wrote through The Mentalist, we see brilliant detectives work through the craziest problems in order to catch criminals. At times, the leads are sort of strange themselves. But the new series takes this to almost impossible lengths. Its hero, Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), is a criminal profiler possibly as crazy as the people he hunts.
Malcolm has been tossed out of the FBI for being uncontrollable but wants to hunt down serial killers. A major reason for that is because his own father, Dr. Martin Whitley (Michael Sheen), a brilliant society surgeon, killed more than 20 people. Malcolm has weird repressed memories of the time when, at 10 years old, he figured out something was wrong and called the police on his father. Now, decades later, he lives alone, ties himself up before he allows himself to go to sleep because of violent dreams, and suffers hallucinations which may or may not be repressed memories.
He winds up doing more profiling when he runs into a killer who uses the same methods as dear old dad, and he winds up visiting him, which causes even more problems. But Malcolm has two kinds of family support systems. He has an overbearing, slightly alcoholic, very rich and attractive mother (Bellamy Young) and a naïve but manipulative younger sister Ainsley (Halston Sage). On the other hand, he has a father figure in NYPD Lt. Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips), the man who arrested his father and who has Malcolm join his crew of cops which include Detective Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau), a tough cop from the Bronx who has been through her own hell working undercover, and Detective J.T. Tarmel (Frank Harts), a tough urban cynic. For comic relief, there is brilliant coroner Dr. Edrisa Tanaka (Keiko Agena), who has a crush on Malcolm.
Malcolm is pulled into the middle of a whole group of serial killer cases, including one for “The Junkyard Killer,” who played a role in his father’s killings and knows many secrets. There are many fascinating, if horrific, twists and turns. Ainsley wants to use her father, who she barely remembers, as the subject of an interview to move her to the top of media flash journalism. Papa woos her, pointing out that he saved many lives, so his killings are balanced out. Then he arranges someone to attack her cameraman boyfriend and saves the young man’s life.
As you probably figured out, this is not a happy show. Several episodes (out of the dozen already shown) could come straight out of horror movies, if not slasher films. But there is a certain fascination in watching for what comes next.
It helps that the cast is exceptionally good. Payne is appropriately charming and tormented. Somehow, even at the best of times, you can see his issues waiting to explode. But Sheen steals every scene he is in. Some critics have suggested that he should be the central character. However, as a tormented genius, he creates his own sense of fascinating manipulative horror. And Young’s mother manages to demonstrate that even as a caring, actually over caring to the point of smothering, mother, she still has many secrets. I liked Sage as the sister; she knows how to manipulate.
But the cops have become Malcolm’s real family. Phillips is very strong as the surrogate father. He manages to be tough and caring, and not only toward Malcolm. I particularly like Perrineau. She is pitch perfect as the tough cop, one who in many ways is the perfect balance wheel for the slightly nuts profiler.
This show, shown on Fox on Mondays at 9 p.m. is not for everyone. But it manages, even while in the framework of a police procedural, to be nicely twisted. Things happen you do not expect. People are often not who they seem at first. The good guys do not always win.
So, you might want to take a look at this some evening. It could very well suit you.